The Smiling Barber
My close friend Mustafa (or “Tafa”) is a smiling barber. Tafa arrived at the detention centre in 2016, after being officially registered as an asylum seeker by the International Organisation for Migration. Largely funded by the Australian government, the IOM is tasked with providing food, shelter and medical care for refugees. However, it was also here where Tafa – like the rest of us – began to experience the horrible monotony of life in limbo. Where we live, all is uncertainty.
When Tafa discovered that I was teaching basic English to my fellow detainees, he lost no time in joining the class. Although our living conditions were dire – without quality educational resources or a quiet environment for studying – Tafa was highly motivated, and impatient to educate himself. He would sit outside his room every morning, writing down and memorising new English words. He used class discussions as opportunities to practise his vocabulary. In a short time, he learnt to speak very good English.
Confined in Pontianak prison on Kalimantan – the biggest, hottest island in Indonesia – our boredom was ever-present. We wondered day and night how to pass our time positively. While many were at a loss to come up with ways to keep themselves healthy and entertained, Tafa was different. He would give his weekly IOM rations of tea and sugar to the prison cleaners, in exchange for a smuggled hair clipper and comb. Equipped with the tools of his trade, he began to teach himself the art of haircutting.
Tafa believed a good haircut was a simple way to help his low-spirited refugee brothers. When a group of illegal fishermen from Thailand and Vietnam were detained alongside us, Tafa began cutting their hair, too. He had a natural talent for the work and once we learned how good he was, we bombarded him with requests. Whenever disappointment lay heavy on his shoulders, and his mind grew vulnerable to waves of suffering and anxiety, Tafa would pick up his comb, scissors, a pack of disposable Sanex strips and the long black protective gown that he hand-made just for his customers. He wanted to infuse our gloomy days of waiting with a brief burst of beauty, hope and happiness. Despite the hardship and trauma that crushed our souls, Tafa was like a sun shining brightly on the dark lives of his cellmates. Never without his wide infectious smile, he was determined to choose a different path that freed his mind. I am proud to call Tafa my friend.
I would often turn to him and share my private worries. He always listened attentively, never once betraying my trust. In the early mornings, when the other asylum seekers were still asleep, we would meet up outside and sit in the shadow of the prison walls, reading novels about love and peace that were left behind by past detainees. Tafa described his dream of a world where everyone would live in harmony and never be compelled to leave their homelands. All of us imprisoned refugees had fled violence and inhumanity back in our war-stricken countries, believing we would be received with care and love once we got to a safe country. Instead we were treated with ignorance, inhumanity and violence by the prison authorities.
Our only way of knowing love, kindness, and humanity was to read about them in the poems of Ali Kharazi. Kharazi wrote that love was the answer to all problems. We wondered if by loving the immigration officials we would learn to forget their rudeness and inhumanity. Even though they always treated us with anger and coldness, we tried to respond with respect and courtesy, hoping that the power of love might one day change their behaviour towards us.
We checked our watches and calendars all the time, but each day was the same as the last, and the last. Packed alongside each other in tiny cells, our hopes of securing a free and dignified life in the near future diminished. Our dreams became mocking strangers to us. The years in detention crawled by. We aged fast. Our hairs turned white and our faces took on the colour of autumn. We became accustomed to life in prison.
Pain made a permanent home in our hearts. We knew the pain well, and it knew us. Its effects always remained fresh. We felt pain whenever we sought our release dates from prison into community shelters, but got no answers. We felt pain when we were fed excuses that there was no room in the shelters, and pain when promises to build newer shelters in the city fell through. It was almost as though there were benefits to be enjoyed, money to be made by those on the outside, the longer we were incarcerated.
Finally, in July 2018, we were released into refugee accommodations located in the city of Batam. Here, we were permitted to go outside during the day, but had to return to the shelter by 6 PM for curfew.
It’s 10 in the morning. Tafa and I are on the second floor of the refugee shelter, seated on an old couch near the window. The thin covering is ripped and torn in many places. There’s a big hole in the right-hand side of the couch filled with cigarette stubs, filling the air with a nauseating stench. But a heavy rain had stopped just an hour ago, and the sun is now shining. The air is warmer, and the gentle breeze blowing through the window bars kisses our faces and ruffles our hair.
In comes Alex, a muscular young boy who uses dumbbells made from stone and sand found in the shelter yard. He is in need of a haircut. So Tafa picks up his iron scissors, wraps the long hand-made protective gown around Alex’s body, spreads water over his hair, and begins. Soon, the boy’s hair begins to take shape.
After 15 minutes, Alex stands up, shaking his head and looking at himself in the mirror with satisfaction. I think if he goes on a date tonight, his girl will be impressed. Then his smile falters. He turns to face Tafa. Quietly, he says, “My haircut is really good, but it’s still long. Please cut it shorter.”
IOM does not supply refugees with hair clippers, and even though Tafa only charges a little money for his services – just enough to buy new scissors, combs and electric clippers – we both knew that Alex couldn’t afford haircuts several times a month. The boy smiles politely as Tafa starts to cut the rest of his hair, but something was being revived in me – a childhood memory from Afghanistan.
My siblings and I could never afford to go into town for haircuts. Whenever our hair grew long, my father would unlock the old wooden box where we kept our important belongings, including the big iron scissors used both for clothes and for shearing sheep. We kids would sit in silent dismay on a dead tree trunk near our mud house, waiting for our father to arrive with a round bowl and scissors in his hands. He would put the bowl on our heads and cut our hair. We never spoke a word of complaint. But my biggest wish as a child was to have a proper haircut, in a real barber shop.
I remember once being invited to a relative’s wedding in the village. Wedding days in Afghanistan meant special rice, as much meat as you can eat, sweet tea, music and dancing – an abundance of joy. We were only allowed to wear new clothes on special occasions, and my siblings and I were delighted that we’d nearly outgrown our old ones. That day, my mother opened the suitcase and handed me my brand-new outfit, constantly warning me to keep it clean and take it off the moment I returned home. I nodded, smiling, and left the house. I found my father standing outside under the shadow of a tree, waiting for other men in the village so they could all go to the wedding together.
He looked at me proudly, then repeated my mother’s words about keeping my clothes clean. I pointed at my new clothes and explained that just this once, I needed a haircut to complete my smart look for our relative’s wedding day. He looked down at me. Our eyes met, and I felt his love as he reached into his pocket and gave me some money.
My excitement and joy doubled. I was almost floating. I ran down the bumpy earth road to the market, arriving gasping and sweaty. I went straight to the old shop and handed the money to the barber. I watched from my place on his special chair as he cut my hair beautifully. I never had a haircut like this before – one that was so neat, clean and shiny. I looked really handsome, and I was sure the girls at the wedding party would think so too. I was so happy I felt like I was floating out of my skin.
Suddenly, I remembered my father’s words when he handed me the money. “Tell the barber to cut your hair short.” I had nodded obediently, but now, looking at my reflection in the mirror, I really liked what I saw. I wanted to leave there and then, but I knew this would be unacceptable to my father. Finally, with infinite sadness, I asked the barber to cut my hair shorter. He did this dutifully, and I left with my dream of a perfect haircut unfulfilled.
After Alex leaves, Tafa and I sit submerged in silence for several minutes. He looks as heavy-hearted as I feel. I tell him my childhood memory about the disappointing haircut, and how my sadness reflected what I saw in Alex’s face today. I can tell from Tafa’s expression that he regrets destroying the boy’s perfect haircut. At that moment, I knew that nobody else could understand Alex’s dilemma better than we did.
For millions of people across the world, getting the haircut they desire – like the ability to go outside, move around freely, or live wherever they want – is simple. For Alex, Tafa and countless other refugees like ourselves, the opportunity to make our own choices and hold on to what we loved, are continually denied to us.
Since we were forced out of our countries, we have been living as human beings who are denied our humanity. There might someday be an opportunity for a few of us to finally escape this monotonous cycle, the years of waiting and waiting. But no matter where we end up, there will always be hundreds and thousands who remain trapped in this harsh political system, stripped of their identities, punished by misery and deprivation only for the crime of having left our homes in search of safety, never getting their perfect haircuts.
Erfan Dana is a Hazara writer from Afghanistan. He is a human rights activist, volunteer and interpreter for refugees in Indonesia. He has lived in constant uncertainty in Indonesian refugee camps after being forced to flee Afghanistan since late 2014. He would like to thank his editor for helping him with this piece.